The Myth of Multitasking [Slow Down Challenge: Day 3]

Note: This week, I’m writing a series of challenges to help you (and me) slow down and savor the good parts of life. Find out more about it here, and make sure you’re signed up for email updates so you don’t miss a thing.

Distraction. It’s one of the fastest ways to lose our focus and start — uh, what was I saying? Sorry, I had to check my email real quick. Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah, distraction…

Photo Credit: RLJ Photography NYC via Compfight cc

You and I are called to important work that not just anyone can do. And the biggest obstacle to accomplishing this is a million little distractions that we encounter every day.

Recently, Erik Fisher interviewed me for his podcast, Beyond the To Do List, which focuses on productivity and getting things done. We were talking about my new book, The In-Between, and he asked quite candidly,

What does slowing down have to do with productivity?

Great question. On the surface, it may seem that the two don’t have much in common. But nothing could be further from the truth.

We have this idea that if we accomplish many things, then that equates to better work. Doing one thing at a time feels inefficient, so why not combine them?

We call this “multitasking,” and when it works we feel like we did something right. But what if it never worked? What if multitasking was a myth?

The costs of multitasking

Every time you put your hand to something, you’re communicating (both internally and externally) the priority of that task. You’re saying it’s just as important as whatever else you’re trying to do.

But what happens when you multi-task during family time? Or when you mix chatting with friends with a little bit of work? And how about that bright idea of catching a movie while you should be writing your next book or blog post?

Not good ideas, right? So why do we think we can get away with other forms of multi-tasking? We don’t realize what it’s costing us.

When you try to do more, you accomplish less. When you multitask, you’re not only communicating a priority; you’re diluting your focus. As Confucius once said,

Man who chases two rabbits catches neither.

There is a cost to our constant productivity. When we try to do too many things, we end up doing them poorly.

Staying productive is good. But busyness robs us of the gift right in front of us (tweet that). It distracts us from the most important things in life and often steals our joy.

Don’t let that happen to you. Learn to pay attention to what matters most and find the freedom that comes from focusing.

Challenge: Focus


What if today you stopped trying to fit more things into smaller blocks of time? How much better would your work be if you do fewer things? How much more present could you be to each task, and how much happier would that make you? How much would you grow?

That’s what we’re going to do today. Here’s your assignment:

  1. Pick one task you need to accomplish; write it down.
  2. List all distractions that stand in your way.
  3. Share the list with one person who can hold you accountable.
  4. As you work, glance at your list and remind yourself what really matters.
  5. Turn off your phone and/or silence other pieces of technology, while you do this task. See how much better your can concentrate when you focus.

My task is to type the addresses of 100 people that I spoke to last weekend. They gave me their contact info at an event, and I promised to send them something this week. But I’ve been busy day with appointments, so I keep procrastinating.

Distractions include email and social media that I check in between meetings. Instead of doing that, though, I’m going to remember these people are counting on me and I can’t let them down.

For more about learning to focus, check out my new book, The In-Between, which is a call to pay attention to what’s right in front of us (it’s currently 40% off on Amazon).

What’s your one thing you need to accomplish today? Share in the comments.

67 thoughts on “The Myth of Multitasking [Slow Down Challenge: Day 3]

  1. Love this, Jeff. I’ve switched my idea of work this past year. I try to do less and stay more focused, so the work I produce is better and I don’t burn out. It’s hard to adjust, but once you do it feels amazing!

  2. Today my focus is the research for an article that I’m working on, my phone is charging – in another room, with sound on vibrate, and I have closed all windows and made it appear that I’m either not home, or still in bed. The latter not an option so onward to my research.

  3. Jeff, great post! Too bad I have too many things on my plate today to actually be able to do this! Today, at least. I will take up this challenge on another day, I guess… (Kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?)

    Also, I can make your task much simpler. Get Evernote Hello. Snap photos of all those business cards. Now they are searchable. You’ll be done in 15-20 minutes, tops, and that’s if you add a few notes to yourself. Good luck!

  4. While reading your blog post, I keep jumping over to my social media networks. When I finally realized the irony of what I was doing, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.

    It’s sad that we’ve become a culture that feels more is more… even if it is at the sake of doing that “more” right.

    I, for one, will be following the assignment today. It’s obviously needed.

    Thanks, Jeff!

  5. Didn’t expect to read my name. That threw me. 🙂

    I am glad you elaborated on your answer to my question. I saw the connection, and knew you did to. “Productivity” is less about getting lots of stuff done, and more about getting the right things done well.

    I’m continually trying to do fewer things, so I may do the most important things with excellence.

    Obviously much more can be said about this topic, and I’m glad to post the new episode where we talk about that in a few days. It will be at once it goes live.

  6. Good Stuff today – she wrote as she listened to her Sports Radio show! So for me, it’s time to turn the radio off and re-write chapter 3 in Ebook/manifesto!
    Thanks Jeff.

    1. Being a single mom is one of the most admirable jobs today. You are in my prayers this very moment. Hope you find your focus on your Angel (s) day by day. Don’t whine…. smile. You are a hero.

  7. I love this! I am finding simply having the discipline to NOT have 15 tabs open while I am working is helping! In our western culture filled with Master Multitaskers, I always hear my now nearly grown girlies’ toddler voice, asking me to listen to her with my eyes. Ah yes – always the multitasker… this pulls me back to be fully present and once again prioritize my time and focus. Today… I am finishing my ‘online work’ early so I can listen with my eyes this afternoon!

  8. I really need to write my manifesto. I told my blog followers that I would have it finished by the end of this month. I need to really focus on it though.
    What stands in my way? Dishes. Laundry. A blog post. Lunch.

    My distractions? The internet. Answering all the responses to blogs I’ve commented on. And answering emails.
    So… I’m going to close out all unnecessary tabs and turn off notifications on my phone. And get to work. I have a deadline to meet.

      1. Thanks, Jeff! I assigned my kids to do the dishes. I grabbed a pen and notepad and wrote 500 words on my manifesto. I think I can have my first draft finished by the end of this week.

  9. Gracious, Jeff — the distractions! My goal is to “go dark” at least 3 hours each day — no phone, no emails, no social media. A browser tab open only for research.
    Let’s see how that goes.

  10. I never did understand the term, multitasking. I can’t see how anyone can do more than one thing at a time. Just look at the number of car accidents since cell phones. When you’re driving, that’s all that you should be doing. When you’re on the phone with someone, you should be just listening and having a conversation. The two should not be mixed.

  11. This is a lesson I’m glad I learned early after never getting anything accomplished 🙂 One thing I need to get done today is one more blog post, it’s next on the list!

  12. I need to finish my blog post for tomorrow and continue to work on my sample chapters for my book proposal. I have to say Jeff, I follow many blogs but to be honest I barely read them, but when I see your post come through I’m always excited and cannot wait to read them! You consistently provide fresh clarifying content. Thank you for all that you do! You have given me confidence to believe in myself and my abilities as a writer. Blessings~

  13. Had one simple project today. Nothing to do with writing. Important though. Focused and almost complete. I need to go back and read The Writers Manifesto. Keep the good words coming.

  14. I knit and watch a movie at the same time, but that is relaxing. To be present, to enjoy the present and who you are is really important. How can I take in, then write what I have been given, if I am taking too much in at one time. Thanks for slowing down and writing this. My project is to finish 3×5 cards on with the Beatitudes for my Small Group to memorize.

  15. This is advice that, I’m sure, you secretly hope no one will follow. Because without distracted people, most bloggers’ readership would drop precipitously, as the majority of potential readers would remain focused on their tasks instead of reading and commenting on posts such as this one. I most certainly should be doing something else right now.

  16. I’ve followed your series this week but I missed this one because I was distracted. *wink* I’m struggling to find balance with writing and connecting and family this week and my husband reminded me of the rock jar. Put the big stuff (the rocks) in first and then the sand (small stuff). I was doing it the other way around and it hasn’t worked. Thanks for this.

  17. Great idea to create this series to tie in w/ your book. Nice work.

    Focus is a big issue for me. With 3 kids & 2 jobs the proclivity for distractions is endless. On the one hand I want to seize opportunities to be present w/ my family. On the other hand I have a difficult time blocking out other distractions like social media, email or shiny new apps.

    One thing I need to accomplish today? I need to update the subscribe page for my blog. There are a bazillion other items on my to-do list, but I had to pick one. 🙂

    Keep up the good work. Godspeed.

  18. Hilarous!!! I distracted myself from this article right here “You and I are called to important work that not just anyone can do” to get my coffee, thinking “This is such good stuff!!!” while in my mind thinking about what I needed to do to be ready to leave for the 2 hour drive north today. It is my day to hang with my daughter, have my RSM session and be present to Portland traffic as I return home! I laughed out loud as I poured my coffee … got back to the laptop and was distracted again by the urgent bill that just popped into my email account … paid it … justified the distraction and so on! So!!! Clearly this series is for me! Important because I have been telling myself many stories as to why I have already slowed down … Think again!!! Thanks, Jeff!

    The task for me today since it is a travel “no-tasky” day is to notice where I distract myself. Notice. And laugh!!!

  19. I cleaned out 2 file drawers full of old files and threw away a bunch of old phone notes, calendars, correspondence, Christmas cards and postcards. I finished going through all of it, but now I need to refile the ones I kept…

  20. I read this yesterday so this morning when my 5 year old began talking about the ‘car wash’ he wanted to make (he had a great imagination) I sat down with him and REALLY listened attentively. I pulled the things he said he needed and put them in a bucket. I had to leave for work but let instructions for the babysitter to let him have ‘items’ and as much free time outside (without siblings interrupting) as he wanted. She told me he was outside working for over 2 hours. That made my heart happy and couldn’t wait to let him tell me over dinner.
    Look forward to reading more ideas!!!

    1. This is adorable!!! How important it is to REALLY listen to our kids when they are little. When they get older they will still talk knowing that we listened then, and will listen now. Awesome! Great job at being a mommy:)

  21. Recently (about 2 weeks ago) I decided I needed one day each week away from the computer. This means no working on writing projects, answering emails, visiting blogs, etc. I had designated Sundays for this. Today is Sunday. I didn’t quite make it through the entire day without the PC but I am relaxing, which is the traditional pastime for Sunday. The only thing I have accomplished today is taking a well-deserved nap.

  22. I’m truly focused on your slow down challenge this week. One thing I need to get done today…budgets (for my job). When there is something I need to do that I don’t enjoy doing I’m usually looking for a distraction. I came here to remind myself of steps to take to keep myself focused; now heading back to budgets. I’m hoping to share a post on saturday that sums up my week of slowing down through your 5-day series. Thanks, Jeff. Btw…I love your new book!!!

  23. Believe it or not, as I read Day 3 just as I was beginning my work day, I made a commitment to catch up from the three days I’ve been away. For me to catch up, I cannot multitask. I have to take things one at a time. However, I am guilty of having the laptop on the deck when we’re sitting at the end of the day, or while watching TV with my hubster, or using the speaker on my cell phone talking with a friend and reading emails at the same time. So today, I’m in good shape. Taking my to do list, already prioritized, and focusing on getting done what needs to be done in an orderly, non-multitasking fashion!

  24. Amazing! This is what I needed. I needed it yesterday when I opened my email, however, half way through reading I tweeted one of your quotes and found myself on twitter and on with my social media whirlwind of conversations and laughter. Now here I sit hours later finishing your post and feeling recharged to become the “Mary” that I am. I read my Bible a lot for blogs, facebook and teaching, This morning I opened it and sat for no other reason but to read it… for me. Thank you so much for stirring on that time with my Savior.

  25. As a verbose extrovert, one of the most important things I need to learn to do is actively listen. It isn’t because I don’t care about others; I really do. I simply find it difficult to truly pay attention without considering what I’m going to say next. I got together with a friend yesterday and sought to really listen. It’s going to take lots of practice, but it is certainly worth it.

  26. I just want to say that I am coming back to re-read this slow down series, slowly, over the next few days before the upcoming american holiday we refer to ask Thanksgiving.

  27. Confucius say, ‘Man who chases two rabbits catches neither.’ Love it! Today – I need to complete the edit of my Chapter 2.

  28. What I need to accomplish today is more practical than anything else. I need to make simple edits to a cover letter. It won’t take me much time and there are writings I could probably work on, but I’ve put this off long enough, like a dish “soaking” in the sink when all it really needs now is a quick sponging and put on a towel to dry.

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